Five Ways To Hydrate Oily, Acne-Prone Skin Without Causing Breakouts

a woman moisturizing her face

Updated 06/26/23. Are you someone who gets clogged pores with frequent or occasional breakouts, yet you find that acne products are too harsh and leave your skin feeling tight and dry? Then, when you try to hydrate your skin with a heavier moisturizer, you find that this causes even more bumps and blemishes? I often hear about this issue from my clients, especially from those who are in their 20s and 30s and even some in their 40s. These are people who still experience breakout activity and find it difficult to balance all of their skin’s needs. That’s where I come in. Keep reading to learn 5 ways to hydrate oily skin without causing breakouts.

1. Avoid Using a Harsh, Acne-Focused Cleanser

Many (but not all) acne cleansers are loaded with harsh detergents and strong ingredients designed to dry up breakouts. If you’re someone who only has 1-5 blemishes on your skin at any given time, think about how your acne cleanser is treating your ENTIRE face for breakouts that are only here or there. Drying out the whole face will result in a layer of dead skin cell buildup, which can trap oil and bacteria under the skin, causing more bumps and breakouts.

Instead of harsh acne-focused cleansers, reach for cleansers listed as sulfate-free. This indicates that sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate and ammonium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate are missing from the formulation, which is a good thing, considering that these sulfate surfactant ingredients contribute to a drying effect on the skin’s surface. I believe using a gel-based cleanser with breakout-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid is beneficial, but it must be gentle. Check out my recommendations for sulfate-free cleansers.

Secondly, listen to your skin. If the cleanser is sulfate-free yet it still leaves you feeling dry, you’ll have to find a gentler alternative. With that being said, (and this is super important!), make sure to wait no longer than 60 seconds before applying your next product after cleansing. If you leave your skin bare for more than a minute, moisture evaporation will start to occur, and the skin will feel tight regardless of how gentle your cleanser is. You always want to use a cleanser formulated exclusively for your skin type so take my Skin Type Quiz to learn more.

It’s important to understand that cleansing is one of the most important steps of your skincare routine. If your first step is drying, then everything you use afterward (toner, serum, and moisturizer) must do repair work to fix the damage created from washing with a drying, irritating cleanser. Note: If you have post-breakout red, dark marks, these are no longer active blemishes with an infection, so the strategy for treating these is completely different. In order to fade acne scars and dark marks, the focus should be on exfoliation, not drying out the skin with an acne cleanser. Read more about how to spot treat a pimple at every stage of its life here.

2. Use an Alcohol-Free Toner After Cleansing to Give Your Skin a Boost of Hydration

Toners are so misunderstood. In fact, toning is often not seen as an important step in a skincare routine, but I’m here to tell you that it is—especially for oily/combination and dehydration-prone skin. There are many benefits to using a toner after cleansing, and one of them is that it’s a very effective way to hydrate skin. Since your skin still has oil underneath the surface (this is the reason you still get clogged pores and breakouts), your skin doesn’t need extra oil. Instead, it requires water, and toners are a great way to get it.

After washing your face, wipe an alcohol-free toner over the skin and then immediately apply a serum. This will seal in the hydrating benefits from the toner so your skin cells remain plump and moist. Skin cells are like fish and need water to live, so don’t skip this important step. (Note: There is a big difference between dry and dehydrated skin and you really need to know what it is. Read this post.)

3. Give Your Skin a Mini Facial Using a Hydrating Gel Mask

One of the fastest and most effective ways to immediately hydrate oily skin is to give it a 2-step exfoliation and a mask treatment. First, you’ll want to exfoliate the skin to remove dry surface cells. After all, there’s no sense in hydrating cells that are already dead, dry, and ready to hit the road, right? You can apply a gentle acid peel and leave it on for 10 minutes. Be sure to rinse it off  thoroughly. Next, apply a layer of a gel mask all over the face. Gel masks are completely oil-free and not only do they provide a soothing effect on the skin due to the cold temperature they naturally retain, but they are formulated to deliver water deep within the skin cells. This will make your skin nice and moist without causing extra breakouts to appear.

4. Use a Treatment Oil to Protect the Skin When Flying on an Airplane or When in Any Dry Climate

I know what you’re thinking. “An oil on my acne-prone skin? No way!” What you need to understand is that all oils are not equal, just as all oils are not pore-clogging. Their purpose is to provide a layer of protection, making sure the hydration in your skin stays put and doesn’t evaporate out. In dry conditions where moisture naturally wants to escape from the skin (through a process called osmosis), using a few drops of a skin oil on top of an appropriate moisturizer (perhaps something oil-free) can act as a sealant to prevent evaporation. Airplanes are the worst for making the skin feel tight and dry, so using an oil can definitely help. (See the experiment I did on a plane to prove just how drying the air is.)

5. Always Use Products For Your Skin Type

While I’m sure you’re someone who tries to stay educated and keep up on the latest and greatest when it comes to skincare, you don’t have to go at it alone. It’s really important that you consult a trusted professional, as they have experience in understanding the true needs of the skin. (Read these common mistakes when determining your skin type.) I can’t tell you how many times my clients have thought their skin was a certain type when in fact it was something completely different. To discover your unique skin type, take my Skin Type Quiz.

You might be surprised that I didn’t list ‘drink a lot of water’ as one of the ways to hydrate oily, acne-prone skin. The truth is that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate the skin. Read more about this here.

One last thing. Go easy on heavy skincare products, because you could end up with clogged pores, which could lead to breakouts and bumps. Instead, look for products with ingredients that help manage oily skin and prevent breakouts.

Disclaimer: Content found on and, including text, images, audio, or other formats were created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website or blog.


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  1. I am using your Skin Drink Serum and I am following the process you described above.Thanks for sharing this.

    Posted By: Elliot  | 

  2. Hi Renee! I am really depressed with my skin problems nowadays as my skin skin was never like this before.there are blackheads on my forehead and facial areas that appear as bumps and some acne appears repeatedly on specific area of my right face side,and they also leave scars.kindly guide me what to do

    Posted By: saba  | 

  3. I’ve taken the skin quiz a few times and each time I get #6. I’ve been using many of the recommended products for quite a while, but according to my aesthetician, my skin is still dehydrated. Any suggestions?

    Posted By: Michelle Lenz  | 

    • I often hear that people will say that their esthetician will say their skin is dehydrated but this is just kind of a generic statement that many estheticians say. Signs of dehydration include the skin feeling tight or having flakiness. If you don’t have any of these, then it might not be bad. The best ways to hydrate the skin is to use an alcohol-free toner after cleansing, leave it damp on the skin and apply a serum and moisturizer. Doing these steps are a great way to keep the skin hydrated. Skin type #6 is a great routine and there isn’t anything that is DE-hydrating the skin. Sometimes climate can make the surface of the skin superficially dehydrated though. Also, make sure you’re exfoliating regularly.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

  4. I have to ask I have tried almost every single treatment for my acne/cystic pimples I tried Vitchy,Oxy,La Posa,tried Ceve worked okay but pimples came coming back,Mario Beascue, Clinic, (sorry spelled that wrong) I am now using clean and clear working okay but my skin feels tight. My question is every time I try something new my pimples keep returning in the same spot my skin still feels oily even after I use clean and clear moisturizer with acne medication in it. I need to know if this will help me need help.

    Posted By: Tina Fynbo  | 

  5. I just want it to work around the mouth Area that’s all

    Posted By: Kathy Johnson  | 

  6. Sorry, I did forget to mention that I also am using your Skin Drink Serum. That is why I’m curious to hear what you think about moisturizers because I am currently following the process you described above—gentle Aloe Cleansing Milk at night, then Elderberry toner, a serum (either BHA or Skin Drink) and Sheer moisturizer. Thanks!

    Posted By: Katie  | 

  7. Hi Renée! I’ve been using products from your Skin Type #2 line, and have been seeing great results in keeping my acne mostly at bay. Now that it’s January (and I live in freezing Minnesota), it seems like the two moisturizers I am using (Sheer Moisture at night and Daily Protection SPF 30 for day), and exfoliating regularly (with the Mint Buffing Beads and the BHA Clarifying Serum), my skin still is a bit flakey and dry, especially after I apply makeup. (It’s mainly dry in the areas where I get oily in the summer, T-zone, around the nostrils, and chin.) Do you recommend I change my moisturizers? I do have a small oil diffuser/humidifier in my bedroom even, so I must need a more nourishing moisturizer. I’m not sure what to do because heavier moisturizers tend to break me out. Maybe to your Hawaiian Nourishing Cream instead of the Sheer Moisture at night? Any advice? Thanks!

    Posted By: Katie  | 

  8. How can you tell if your skin is dehydrated? I have extremely oily skin with clogged pores and I’ve tried bha which clears my skin but dried it out seem to make it oily cause it’s overcompensating so then tried to moistorize which seems to cause more clogged pores.. Any solutions? I was on benzoyl peroxide products for months

    Posted By: Rebekah  | 

    • It sounds like your skin is dehydrated and out of balance. Most skincare lines don’t address your type of skin. Look at my 9 skin types here and take the Skin Type Quiz to learn about how best to care for the unique needs that your skin has.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

  9. Hi! I have been suffering from a recurring cystic acne for about couple of weeks now around my chin area due to possibly a horrible extraction(with a needle)done by a friend who is a student in an esthetician school .So one heals and a new cyst forms.I have oily combination skin .Some clogged pores around my mouth area .I usually don’t get cyst that comes back..I’m looking for products from your line that will help my cystic spots!!

    Posted By: Janet  | 

  10. I am looking for a product line for a new spa for the owner. Allure Spa in Salem, Va. Could you send me any samples if you are interested in providing products to this salon. Chances are we will be doing a lot of IV, V and VI skin types

    Posted By: karen  | 

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you so much for your interest but we don’t have our products sold anywhere else other than our own skin care spas and website.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 


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